Lying on my desk since yesterday: Carmen Ebner’s PhD thesis, all shiny and new. It is the first proper book published in our research project. Congratulations, Carmen! And all the best with your defense on 5 September. You’ll do us proud, I’m certain of it.
What other words are there for stickler, pedant or pundit, Lonneke van Leest-Kootkar asked in a blogpost last year. Rebecca Gowers, in Horrible Words (2016), chose to use the word griper instead of stickler (a word I will always associate with Lynne Truss). But here is another one! It is an old one, possibly revived by Kingsley Amis, so on your guard, OED editors!
I’m analysing Amis’s letters to the editor for my book English usage guides: The biography of a genre (nearly done now!), and I found one from 23 February 1985, in which he refers to himself as “a spotter of popular catachreses”. My rusty knowledge of Greek wasn’t much help here, but the OED was: the word means “Improper use of words; application of a term to a thing which it does not properly denote; abuse or perversion of a trope or metaphor”.
And as an inveterate OED user, I checked the quotation dates: 1589 (Puttenham) to 1810 (Coleridge). Did Amis revive the word? Perhaps, but look at the warning in red: not yet fully (?) updated yet! So, OED editors, here is a really nice postdating of the word, thanks to Kingsley Amis.
And what I’d be interested in is the question whether he really did revive the word, or whether any quotations can be found to fill the gap between 1810 and 1985.
This is a quotation from a new book, The Beast, by Alexander Starritt, due out on 7 September, and previewed in today’s Guardian by Ian Jack, about a fictionalised sub-editor on the Daily Mail. It might make entertaining reading!
This is what Profile Books have to say about Matthew Engel’s new book
That’s The Way It Crumbles
The American Conquest of the English Language
Are we tired of hearing that fall is a season, sick of being offered fries and told about the latest movie? Yeah. Have we noticed the sly interpolation of Americanisms into our everyday speech? You betcha. And are we outraged? Hell, yes. But do we do anything? Too much hassle. Until now.In That’s The Way It Crumbles Matthew Engel presents a call to arms against the linguistic impoverishment that happens when one language dominates another. With dismay and wry amusement, he traces the American invasion of our language from the early days of the New World, via the influence of Edison, the dance hall and the talkies, right up to the Apple and Microsoft-dominated present day, and explores the fate of other languages trying to fend off linguistic takeover bids. It is not the Americans’ fault, more the result of their talent for innovation and our own indifference.He explains how America’s cultural supremacy affects British gestures, celebrations and way of life, and how every paragraph and conversation includes words the British no longer even think of as Americanisms. Part battle cry, part love song, part elegy, this book celebrates the strange, the banal, the precious and the endangered parts of our uncommon common language.
In my experience, letters to the editor are not a frequent phenomenon in Dutch newspapers, at least not when they deal with language, and in any case not in the daily newspaper I read, NRC Handelsblad. A while ago I wrote a blogpost here when one such letter did appear – it seemed like a remarkable exception.
Interestingly, this month’s issue of Onze Taal (a Dutch magazine that deals with all kinds of language issues, prescriptive or otherwise) included an article by Jacco Snoeijer, on letters to the editor. The article deals with the text type in general, and even offers advice on how to write a letter that has the best chance of getting published (it doesn’t, however, discuss editorial policy on which letters on what topics get selected for publication, something I’d really like more information on, in general that is!). The article is in Dutch of course, but the guidelines might well be applicable for English too (be brief, clear and to the point, and avoid letting emotions get the better of you).
The article also claims that usage problems are a regular topic of letters to the editor, and that there is a host of letter writers that regularly comments on language errors. But I rarely see them, or at any rate, not in the paper I read. Perhaps NRC has a different policy in deciding what goes in and what doesn’t than other quality or other newspapers. Or perhaps the author is referring to letters addressed to Onze Taal itself: I’d really like to know, Jacco Snoeijer!
The article also mentions professional complainers, by which the author means spokesmen of companies or ceo’s who write to correct mistakes they encountered in the press. But in my own research I’ve come across letter writers who are professional in a different sense, in that they turn writing letters to the editor into a proper profession. I’ve also come across a case in which the reception of a controversial publication about language was turned in a battle of letters to the editor, in different newspapers no less. Do such arguments – about language, I mean – occur in The Netherlands too, I wonder? I really feel there is a different culture between the UK and The Netherlands in this respect. The Netherlands of course has Onze Taal as a proper outlet for these kind of things. I’m not sure if there is such a journal for English, but if there is, please let me know.
In her book Horrible Words: A Guide to the Misuse of English (2016), Rebecca Gowers uses the word gripers in preference to sticklers (a word I myself always associate with Lynne Truss’s famous Eats Shoots and Leaves), and in her paper at our Life after HUGE? symposium in December last year, she explained why.
Force of habit made me check the word in the OED just now, where I found only two quotations for griper, n., sense 7, both from the 1930s and both from an American source (the same one). The entry has not been updated yet (and it will be interesting to see whether Rebecca’s use of the word makes it into the OED when it is!), but it did make me wonder whether griper in the sense “One who complains” is indeed an Americanism. Is it?